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Behind the Screen

William J. Mann

How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910-1969

(Penguin USA)

The Lavender Screen

Considering that even the general public is dimly aware there is a greater number of homosexuals involved in the movies than in some other occupations it’s surprising that, until recently, there has been relatively little written about them as a group and nearly nothing regarding those who labored behind the camera. Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet and Parker Tyler’s Screening the Sexes were early, pioneering works focusing on actors and/or onscreen representations and which stood alone for decades until Boze Hadleigh’s books of interviews came along. Occasional biographies of Montgomery Clift, Tyrone Power, James Whale or George Cukor might deal with their sexuality and reveal the “secret” of a few others in the process but a book which examines the broad range of queer involvement in the movies had to wait until William J. Mann’s Behind the Screen.

Despite the subject matter Mann’s book has less in common with these earlier books than it does with Neil Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own which related how a number of enterprising Jews took a disdained media and transformed it into a major entertainment business—heck, the major entertainment business of the 20th century—and became the moguls behind the great Hollywood studios in the process. While none of them were also gay, Mann’s book leaves the impression that without Jews and gays there might not even be a Hollywood—at least not as we know it. It bears remembering that straight WASP Thomas Alva Edison, the so-called inventor of the movies, initially thought they were nothing more than a Penny Arcade fad which would soon lose its novelty. Even as late as 1913, he was adamant that the public would tolerate movies no longer than 10 minutes long despite the evidence of European historical epics, clocking in at six to 10 times that length, which the same public was flocking to see. No, it took society’s outsiders to perfect the fantasy machine that became studio-era Hollywood.

The arts have always been a haven for those who are different—and not just sexually. This is true of theater in particular; artists tend to be of an open, exploratory disposition generally and communities of artists tend to be non-judgmental of a broad range of behavior. That the theater, decoration and fashion trades have proven havens for ages should come as no surprise, and it was from these areas that film drew its personnel initially. In Hollywood, they were far better paid and the concentrated area the industry occupied at the time gave it a sense of community.

But it was a community that needed to be hidden from the greater public. Hollywood, after all, was manufacturing fantasy and not merely onscreen; if Theodosia Goodman of Ohio was transformed for public consumption into Theda Bara, a woman of mysterious origin whose name was an anagram for Arab Death, no less needed to be done for the cowboy who was a flaming queen or the bull dyke who played virgins. So elaborate facades involving faux romances and sham marriages became the order of the day (and continue even now). With the rise in power of the Production Code in the early 1930s, they became positively mandatory. The code was drawn up with the direct input of the Catholic church and Mann makes note of the Hays Office’s Joseph Breen’s virulently anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks in his memos. The early 1950s again saw need for gays and lesbians to adopt extreme camouflage, surprisingly not from Joseph McCarthy’s HUAC hearings but from the many scandal magazines such as Confidential which began publishing at that time.

But for all the need for circumspect behavior, Mann points out that Hollywood gays needed to be far less in the closet than their brothers and sisters elsewhere in the U.S. They also made far better money and, unlike other businesses, often wielded a great deal of power, unlike their brethren in other industries. And if the onscreen portrayals were figures of comedy, they were far less demeaning characterizations than blacks were allowed at the time. Considering the code forbade them being depicted at all, getting them onscreen actually turned the joke on the censors. And, as Mann points out, the depictions were benign compared to the psychotic fags and predatory dykes that characterize such post-Stonewall offerings as Cruising and Windows.

Does this mean that pre-Gay Lib Hollywood was better than today? No. Just different. And perhaps not quite so repressed as we’ve thought. Yes, one had to live a lie to the general public but there always has been and always will be some price to pay for fame and the closet may have borne no costlier a sticker than any other trade-off (very few public figures lead the lives they present to us). For gays and lesbians, however, it meant that the true extent of their numbers and their contributions to society also remained hidden. And this is where Mann’s book is most valuable; it names names—lots and lots of names from the well known to forgotten performers and never-heard-of technicians. In the cases of the famous, Mann’s research sometimes merely provides further verification while in others it reveals that their same-sex alliances were far more extensive than previously realized. It is also quite astonishing how many became far-right-wing Republicans (one wonders what the reaction of those who voted for him would be to the knowledge that the bent population of the Reagan White House might have had a higher percentage than Fire Island around the Fourth of July).

In the hands of a lesser writer (or, at any rate, one with less perspective) this book could have turned into a gossipy laundry list. But Mann constructs his book chronologically making it a history of Hollywood itself (though focusing on the participation and contributions of a specific group) and is careful to couch the film capitol’s chronicle within the larger context of events within the U.S.

Behind the Screen is essential for anyone interested in Hollywood—particularly its heretofore unwritten past—and for gays and lesbians looking to recover some of their history. And Mann’s exhaustive research and prose style make it informative and enjoyable reading as well.

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